The weirdest new source for the planet

The weirdest new source for the planet's solar-power dreams? Rust

Asad Ali @asadali1989

Rust is (making) history. That coat of rust on your doorknob that signals disaster is longer ugly - it's the stuff scientists' dreams are made of.

Why? Because according to latest research, rust can be a major source to create and preserve solar power.

A team of Stanford University researchers recently, and successfully, proved this theory when they used rust to develop solar cell batteries.

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These rust-born batteries have the ability to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and store the resultant energy. The detailed study was published this January in the Energy & Environmental Science journal. The Stanford team's study was led by William Chueh, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and Nicholas Melosh, an associate professor in the same department. And their work was supported by Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project & the National Science Foundation.

The basic premise of the new research is water-splitting technology - a process by which solar power is trapped during the day to separate H2O's hydrogen, which is then preserved as an energy resource for later use.

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Silicone solar cells have traditionally been used as the main component till now. However, a major drawback with silicon solar cells is that they only convert visible and ultraviolet light into energy, and become less efficient as infrared light beats down on them - creating heat that isn't conducive for the overall process of solar power preservation.

Metal oxide solar cells were also thought to have this same disadvantage till now. That's where the Stanford study becomes important.

Scientists began their experiments of splitting water at different temperatures using three different materials: bismuth vanadium oxide, titanium oxide and iron oxide, or rust.

"In all three cases we observed increased production of hydrogen and oxygen at higher temperatures," Liming Zhang, a postdoctoral scholar in Chueh's lab and co-lead author of the paper said in a Stanford report.

"We realized that the higher temperatures were enhancing the carrier mobility of these cells - the speed at which electrons can pass through the metal oxides."

Basically, they discovered that rust or metal oxide solar cells, convert photons into electrons more efficiently (as opposed to silicon ones) as they become hotter.

And rust is cheaper.

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The same report on the Stanford website quotes Chueh as saying that, "We've shown that inexpensive, abundant and readily processed metal oxides could become better producers of electricity than was previously supposed,'' adding that, "By combining heat and light, solar water-splitting cells based on metal oxides become significantly more efficient at storing the inexhaustible power of the sun for use on demand."

Not only will this mean more focus on developing metal oxides as the preferred economic option to silicon solar cells, Chueh says that the hydrogen produced by water splitting could be used to power vehicles with minimal pollution.

"We can store these gases, we can transport them through pipelines, and when we burn them we don't release any extra carbon. It's a carbon-neutral energy cycle," says Chueh in the Stanford report.

And it isn't just rust that's being explored as a resource for a low-carbon future. There were reports in December last year about Purdue University's tests on 'hydricity' - a solar-hydrogen energy system that could have the potential to power entire cities.

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This system is, in fact, being seen as another rival to solar photovoltaic systems and energy-storing technology in future.

With a slew of solar-focussed technology being developed, it might finally be safe to say after all - here comes the sun!

Edited by Payal Puri

Asad Ali

Asad Ali @asadali1989